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Job and Faust, Goethe and Gounod: The Story Behind Gounod’s “Faust”

By Jane Fitzpatrick

AppreciateOpera.org Contributing Author

 

The legendary folklore of historical figure Johann Georg Faust, who was born in the late fifteenth century, influenced a variety of works for centuries after his life. Inspiring tales of dark bargaining and exchanges with the Devil, it is no wonder that such a drama has reached the opera.


Known as a literary classic based on the old legends, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust contains a stage-setting, and perhaps Biblically inspired, prologue scene of a conversation between God and Mephistopheles, a being from Hell who is also perceived as a personified devil figure. Mephistopheles claims that he can tempt one of the most intelligent humans on earth and lead his soul astray, thus condemning them to eternal damnation. God accepts Mephistopheles’s challenge, and the devil sets off to meet an aging genius named Faust.


This supernatural scene of Goethe’s two-part poetic play is comparable to the Biblical Book of Job, where a figure known as “the accuser,” also referred to as Satan or the Devil, converses with God in a similar manner. The accuser targets Job, a devoutly faithful servant of God, and wagers that Job would curse God if he were to lose the many wonderful things he has acquired in life. God allows it, and Job experiences tremendous suffering, but the accuser does not win the bet.


For many, the Book of Job is known for its lessons in hope and trust in God. Despite his suffering and bitterness, Job does not turn to evil, and he repents for making assumptions about God’s nature and justice during his time of desperate despair.


…but what if Job had turned away from God?


Charles Gounod used the work of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré entitled Faust et Marguerite as his libretto, a play that is based on Part One of Goethe’s Faust, to compose his opera, Faust.


The opera begins with the titular character, having learned all he can about the scientific, philosophical, and mathematical matters of the world, considering drinking poison to end a life that has been filled with devout worldly studies but devoid of love and emotional fulfillment. The unexpected sound of choir voices inspires Faust to hold off on the fatal deed of consuming poison, but his call for guidance amid his spiritual turmoil is met by the conniving Mephistopheles.


Goethe’s Faust seems to be the antithesis of Job’s journey to peace with God. Instead of resisting temptation, Faust accepts the Devil’s promise of a happy life in exchange for eternal damnation. If Faust manages to believe that his life is worth living, he promises to descend on the path to Hell upon his death. Mephistopheles convinces Faust to offer his afterlife in exchange for a second chance on earth by reminding him of the thrills of renewed youth and by presenting the image of a beautiful woman named Marguerite. This presentation seals the deal in Faust’s consideration, and the two begin a tumultuous journey together.


Through the pair’s games of trickery, the beautiful Marguerite becomes the most unfortunate sufferer of this dark tale. After succumbing to Faust’s flirtations, Marguerite becomes pregnant, loses her brother, and is later imprisoned for infanticide. 


Feeling guilty for abandoning her, Faust visits Marguerite in her prison cell. Faust is overwhelmed with pity, but Marguerite shortly recognizes the otherworldly identity of Mephistopheles and begs for heavenly help. She dies during her desperate plea. Mephistopheles attempts to damn her soul, but the sound of angelic singing assures that Marguerite has been forgiven and divinely saved.


Thus ends Part One of Goethe’s play as well as the entirety of Gounod’s opera.


Is there a happy ending?


Gounod’s finale is tragically heartbreaking to watch, yet believing in Marguerite's salvation offers a strange sense of hope — that perhaps even Faust could be saved if he sincerely repents.


In Goethe’s interpretation, Faust is identified by God as His servant, just like Job. God also believes that Faust will prevail in virtue, as Job does. Despite their diverging paths, both Faust and Job are destined for forgiveness and a happy ending.


At the end of Goethe’s Part Two, Faust actually changes his ways; no longer leading his life through lust nor with a desire for boundless power, Faust commits the rest of his days on earth to better the lives of others in honest ways. Before dying, Faust sees a vision of the future in which the country he has established is peaceful and content, and he achieves the highest sensation of emotional fulfillment. 


Mephistopheles is ready to collect Faust’s soul; however, heaven intervenes. Although the Devil had been successful in his deal with Faust, his challenge with God has altered the conditions of Faust’s ultimate fate. Mephistopheles certainly led Faust astray for many years, but his change of heart and efforts to do good for other human beings later in life saved his soul from eternal damnation. Faust’s return to faithful righteousness is rewarded with divine forgiveness of his previous sins — just like Marguerite, who had also prayed for Faust in heaven.


Gounod’s mysterious ending…


Barbier and Carré’s libretto leaves Gounod’s Faust with a mysteriously open ending. The opera concludes its story at the end of Goethe’s Part One, where Faust’s final fate remains woefully uncertain after Marguerite’s death.


While some audience members may be determined that Faust is a lost cause at the end of Gounod’s opera, others may believe that Marguerite’s salvation could be predicting the possibility of change in Faust’s fate, as concluded in Goethe’s play. Though he has seemingly condemned himself and accepted Mephistopheles’s deal, Marguerite’s altered destiny may suggest a potential twist in Faust’s extended story. 


Just like Job, there is still hope for Faust.


What about other adaptations of Faust?


If you’re looking for more Faustian opera, Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, composed in 1846, closely resembles Goethe’s literature but with an alternate ending that may be guessed through the opera’s title. Additionally, Arrigo Boito composed Mefistofele in 1867, a work that utilizes content from both Part One and Part Two of Goethe’s literature, and German composer Louis Spohr composed his own Faust in 1813, but his librettist relied on other plays and poems based on the classic legend rather than Goethe’s writings.


Gounod’s composition debuted in 1859 and is widely considered to be the most popular among the several musical renditions of the legend of Faust. The libretto’s focus on outward events of Goethe’s Part One rather than Faust’s psychological toils in Part Two, coupled with the elimination of Goethe’s — and the Bible’s — stage-setting scene of dialogue between God and the Devil, prominently focuses the story’s spotlight on the tragic undoing of Marguerite’s innocence as well as her triumphant return to the light. The opera’s variations from Goethe’s story of Faust come from its dependence on Carré and Barbier’s libretto, which highlights unique themes and alters minor characters, but Gounod’s work lends itself well to the dramatics of theatre and creates an accessible musical display of human emotions.


The tales of Faust and his vice-to-virtue drama have graced many of the world’s stages, and Gounod’s musical interpretation of its temptations and salvations remains a favorite for many opera enthusiasts.

 

Jane Fitzpatrick is an avid researcher of the intersections between religious traditions and international affairs with a passion for opera and art. She earned her master's degree in International Affairs from Penn State University and has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Gettysburg College. Jane has previously provided research assistance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army War College. In 2023, she became an AppreciateOpera.org contributing columnist.

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